June 22, 2024

How small-scale developers can navigate the planning system

By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, propertyCEO

The planning system is in need of a thorough overhaul. The government has taken up the challenge and some significant changes have been introduced, with more to follow.

For example, to change the use of a building there are now Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) to help you. These permit certain changes of use without the need to apply for full planning permission. Most homeowners currently have PDRs to extend their own homes. But if you want to convert an office to apartments, change the upper floors of a shop into flats, or turn an old farm building into a house, there are PDRs that can allow you to do it, plus many others besides. New PDRs came into effect on 1st August 2021.

Most PDRs require you to apply to the council to obtain what’s known as Prior Approval, but this differs significantly from the full planning permission process. For starters, the planning authority can only assess the application against a relatively small number of criteria, plus in many cases they are obliged to respond within a fixed period, typically 56 days (although the council can request an extension).

Inevitably, there will be situations where you will have to apply for full planning permission. This can be tricky process. Let’s look at what you can do to increase your chance of avoiding a planning refusal notice and being able to move forward with your project.

Review your local Town Plan

All local authorities have one, and it gives details of their local planning policy. It always amazes me how many developers fail to do their basic research and submit plans for something expressly forbidden within the local Town Plan. It’s like asking the police if it’s ok to rob a bank. Make sure you know yours inside and out and that your proposed project stays within the rules.

Take a detailed approach

Planning departments are massively under-resourced, yet they’re required to assess planning applications within eight weeks (13 weeks for larger projects). What happens if your application has reached week seven and it’s still languishing in the planning department’s in-tray? Does the planning department rally the troops, and miraculously turn around your application within a week? Or will they write to you on day fifty-five asking for a parking survey or contamination survey, or any one of about a hundred different surveys they could ask for, which effectively stops the eight-week countdown and puts the ball back in your court? You can probably guess the most likely outcome.

So, give some thought to which surveys the planning authority could reasonably request for your project. Enclosing this with your original application could save you time later on.  Also triple-check that your application is 100% complete before submitting it.

  1. Have a well-written planning application

Planning officers are not particularly sympathetic to applications that are poorly written, badly constructed, or difficult to understand. So, make sure that yours is the exact opposite. It may seem overkill, but planning is a people business, and we all know how rational they can be.

  1. Take privacy, access, and light into account in your planning

You must consider the privacy of both existing neighbouring properties and the units you intend to build. Make sure your new homes don’t overlook your neighbours or each other. This can be challenging when trying to get in as much natural light as possible, so consider using high-level windows or light wells to avoid overlooking. Also, think about how people will access their new homes. Will they have to walk right past someone’s living room window or down a narrow walkway? Make sure you factor these things into your thinking right from the start.

  1. Build in keeping with the surroundings

The planners will judge how your proposed development fits within the context of other buildings in the immediate vicinity and the street scene overall. Does it add to or detract from the street’s character? If your proposed building is three storeys tall and the neighbouring houses are two storeys, expect to be called out on it. You need to build ‘in keeping’ with what is already in situ.

The planning system is tricky to navigate but with care you can be successful.


Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is a veteran property developer of almost 40 years and co-founder of propertyCEO, a nationwide property development and training company that helps people create a successful property development business in their spare time. It makes use of students’ existing life skills while teaching them the property, business, and mindset knowledge they need to undertake small scale developments successfully, with the emphasis on utilising existing permitted development rights to minimize risk and maximize returns.